LET’S TALK ABOUT SEX: Performance anxiety

It’s a big day in a man’s erotic life the first time he loses his erection in the midst of a sexual encounter. It can feel like a tragic self-betrayal, a terrible humiliation, proof that he’s broken and can never have sex again. The good news is that if he’s lucky and he hangs in there, he gets to the red-letter day when he discovers that he can lose his erection AND stay connected to his partner. In fact, that’s where the good stuff begins.

It takes some maturity, some practice, some support, and a little bit of a leap of faith to view erectile dysfunction simply as a mechanical failure, not a comment on your masculinity or a referendum on your worth as a human being. It’s a life-changing experience to realize that being a wonderful lover isn’t just about what you do with your penis but what you do with your hands, your mouth, your voice, your sense of humor, your energy, and your heart.

Erections are great and fun and super-pleasurable. But it’s exhausting and challenging to operate under pressure to Perform Like a Porn Star, constantly worrying – to put it bluntly – about your dick: is it big enough, is it hard enough, am I doing it right, am I going to come too fast, am I taking too long? Performance anxiety is the enemy of erotic intelligence, at least the way I understand it, which is the ability to be present for pleasure, to tune into your partner and what’s going on right here right now, without getting wrapped in trying to make something specific happen.

It’s not just men who struggle with performance anxiety. Social media has ramped up perfectionism for all of us. We spend a lot of time fixated on Getting It Right. We’re constantly tailoring our appearance and our behavior for each other’s approval. It’s an existential challenge to let all that go and leave reserve performance anxiety for people who are onstage performing.

In my work and in my life, I’m all about healing through pleasure, learning for myself and teaching other people how to turn down the volume on Pressure to Perform and be present for pleasure.

In workshops or in sessions when we’re focusing on intimacy, sometimes I will have partners spend time gazing into each other’s eyes, exploring the notion of the eyes as gateway to the soul, “into-me-you-see.” This can be beautiful, and it can also feel really vulnerable. We take in A LOT of information visually, and we live in a culture that has become hyper-focused on evaluation, stirring up equal amounts of judgment and fear of being judged.

So if we’re working on cultivating the capacity to be present for pleasure, sometimes it makes sense to close the eyes, to turn down the volume on incoming visual stimulus.

If you want to practice being present for pleasure right now, one way to do that is to let your eyes gently close and go inside. With your eyes gently closed, the idea is to take a moment to breathe, go inside, and take a break from processing visual information, judging and being judged.

As you let yourself breathe, bring your awareness to the way gravity works on your body. Let your face muscles rest, let your jaw soften, let your shoulders rest. Feel your buttocks on the seat of your chair, your feet on the floor. You don’t have to change anything or do anything special. Just take a moment to breathe and make space for what happens when you withdraw the sense of sight. Do things quiet down inside, do they rev up, do they stay the same? Try it now and just let yourself notice what happens.

Part of erotic intelligence is expanding your awareness of your own body. Notice the temperature of the air in the room against your skin. Notice the places where your clothing touches your skin, whether it feels soft, constricting, comforting, annoying. Notice what sounds you’re aware of in the room right now. Notice which sensations are pleasurable, what you’d like more of, what you’d like less of.

With a trusted sensual partner, closing your eyes or using a blindfold can be a simple tool for cultivating erotic intelligence. Removing one sense can heighten others. Light touch and pleasant sounds can be amplified, as can tastes and fragrances. The uncertainty of what happens next can create a luscious experience of anticipation and seductiveness. Nothing to do, nowhere to go, but be right here right now, taking in whatever sensory information is available.

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Note: this was part of a talk I gave November 9, 2019, as part of “Sessions Live,” Esther Perel’s online salon for sex therapists and coaches.

LET’S TALK ABOUT SEX: porn-influenced performance anxiety

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There’s an epidemic afoot in the land these days that has gone unreported and rarely discussed but I see it so much that I’ve given it a name: PIPA, for porn-influenced performance anxiety. Starting with the advent of home video in the early 1980s and amping up in the last 15 years when the internets have become an essential part of everyday life, access to stills and films of sexual activity has become so easy and ubiquitous that pornography has shifted from an entertainment medium to an educational model. Mostly without even thinking about it, people who watch porn – whether casually, obsessively, or somewhere in between – have started to internalize its formulaic choreography as if it were the rule book on How to Have Sex, not unlike the way fashion magazines with their freakishly skinny, digitally airbrushed models brainwash young women into thinking that’s what they’re supposed to look like. As a result, a lot of guys have started to put enormous pressure on themselves and/or their partners to Perform Like a Porn Star, with the result that sex is not nearly as much fun as it’s supposed to be.

Let’s think about some of the myths perpetuated by gay male porn:

  • everybody is good-looking, white, buff, and healthy;
  • everybody has a big dick that always gets hard and always shoots;
  • everybody loves to suck cock is good at it;
  • everybody loves anal sex, bottoms love to get fucked and open their asses easily;
  • everybody is able to move into sex easily on a moment’s notice;
  • nobody ever has difficult getting and maintaining an erection;
  • nobody ever has difficult staying hard while putting on a condom and achieving penetration;
  • nobody ever says “Ow, ow, take it out, it hurts”;
  • nobody ever has conversations about HIV status or negotiating likes and dislikes;
  • nobody ever has difficulty ejaculating.

Meanwhile, many of the things that are most enjoyable about sexual intimacy you never see in porn, because they’re not especially photogenic:

  • taking your time and getting to know each other;
  • making out at length, keeping your clothes on for a while, at least your underwear;
  • holding, cuddling, and spooning;
  • frotting (rubbing bodies or dicks together without penetration);
  • napping afterwards or making tea;
  • laughing together;
  • lying on the couch together after a stressful weekend with the family….

It’s funny to break down the differences between porn sex and real-life sex, but plenty of guys fall into the trance of not knowing the difference between the two. If you can’t Perform Like a Porn Star in every way, there’s something wrong with you. If your partner can’t Perform Like a Porn Star, either he’s not attracted to you or there’s something wrong with him. If the rigidly enforced chain of events that typifies a porn encounter – meet, lock eyes, strokey-strokey, sucky-sucky, fucky-fucky, shoot-shoot, the end – doesn’t feel so good when you try to reproduce it in your own life, there’s something wrong with you. If what you like doesn’t match what you see in porn, there’s something wrong with you….

When all roads lead to that recurring refrain, maybe it’s time to consider where you’re getting these ideas about what constitutes acceptable/pleasurable sexual behavior. What you like to watch in porn may be different from what feels good when you’re having sex with a partner. How do you know? How do you keep from confusing the two? Talk to your friends. Talk to your playmates. Talk to your partner. Talk to your therapist. You can always talk to me. Let me know what you think.